Well, they've done it. They've survived the year from hell, with a hopelessly overmatched manager, a rumored but never unveiled treasure chest meant to revitalize a squad whose actual age was catching up to their prematurely graying and receding hairlines, a humiliating season of unending self-inflicted calamities, all of which resulted in a Premier League table finish outside of both European competitions. They've empowered their balls-bearingly showy new coach, cracked open that treasure chest and shoveled out huge mounds of bullion for a number of promising players, and set their sights on delivering the club back to the world's spotlight to which it's accustomed. Finally, Manchester United's plan for an immediate rebound from mid-table embarrassment to the top(ish) table glory is finally bearing fruit. Well, sort of.
Yesterday, Louis van Gaal's Red Devils stepped onto Southampton's turf and took the three points they needed to leapfrog the Saints and land in third place. On paper, this is the new United finally hitting the stride that should keep them on pace for a top-four finish. The team endured some early growing pains adapting to van Gaal's tactical philosophy of playing the ball out from the back, and carefully orchestrating player movement so as to facilitate intricate attacks while also being prepared to rebuff counters when possession is lost, but has since won seven of their last 10 matches and look much more comfortable with what their manager has been asking of them.
Key man Robin van Persie, whose left foot practically won them their last title just two seasons ago, scored twice on the night, recapturing his form as the ageless goal-demon of the recent past rather than the chronically hobbling striker on the decline that the gray around his temples and his up-and-down play over the last year and a half would suggest. Even without their best player, Ángel Di María, United were able to beat the high-flying Saints on their own pitch, a feat only Manchester City has matched this season.
But this paints a rosier picture than what's really been going on, both in the match and in United's deceptively flattering recent record. Southampton controlled the game. They had more possession, created many more dangerous chances, and undoubtedly went home feeling that a couple crucial mistakes had cost them a signature win. Both United goals came from almost comical errors, the first being a blind, weak back pass by José Fonte that van Persie gambled on and was rewarded for in the form of an easy interception and a not-much-tougher finish between keeper Fraser Forster's legs. The second came off a deep free kick that Rooney curled perfectly to the far post, where a completely unmarked van Persie had the time to execute his little leaping, outside-of-the-boot tap for the game winner.
It wasn't just mistakes; it was bad luck. Countless times, Southampton worked hard to pressure United into turnovers, sending a number of bodies darting through the box for some gorgeous combination play, only for the crucial pass to get hit with a tad too much weight or a couple degrees wide of the perfect angle, granting United chances to recover. United may be growing more comfortable with the requirements of van Gaal's system, but the return of the three central defenders formation that didn't convince early on this season hasn't looked much more convincing these last couple matches, either.
The Saints had their chances off the same kind of defensive mistakes that ultimately sank them, but they were unable to to capitalize. Whereas EPL revelation Graziano Pellè was able to smash home his chance, lesser-quality players like Shane Long would receive a ball in the heart of the box only to send his shot into the stands, or Sadio Mané would carve his way through the defense, only to linger on the ball a beat too long and see it taken from him. Where their teamwork would create danger, their lack of individual brilliance couldn't finish the opportunity. As great as Southampton have looked this year, they just don't have enough players able to turn losses into wins the way a van Persie or a Rooney can.
Can you be an unconvincing third? Doesn't matter: the table doesn't lie, and Manchester United are third. First and second places are almost certainly cemented by Chelsea and Manchester City—probably in that order—but the fight for the next two UCL spots are wide open. Liverpool have no idea how to play, Arsenal are as injury-riddled as ever, and the likes of Southampton and current fourth-place denizens West Ham have still yet to prove they are anything more than a tough stretch of fixtures or a key injury or two from slipping back to the Tottenham Zone.
What United lack in depth and consistency of their top four rivals, they make up for in honest-to-goodness world-beaters. As we've seen yesterday and in United's slow climb back up the table, that's often enough.